Great Aerial Views of Communist Landmarks in Bucharest

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Today I came across this great video which was filmed using a drone. The videos shows a bird’s eye view of Bucharest, and highlights several Communist landmarks:

  • the fountains on Unirii Boulevard.
  • the Parliament’s Palace (People’s House)
  • the Monument of the Unknown Soldier
  • Casa Scanteii (literally, “the House of the Spark”, the headquarters of the Communist mass media)

Enjoy! (more about the author of the video)

When Communist Ideals Trump Everything Else

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Today’s Romanian politicians are rarely animated by genuine political ideals, and political parties are less defined by an ideology than they are by political opportunism and short-term programs. However, some of the early Communists were radically different from how politicians act, think and behave today. In fact, some of them believed so strongly in the Communist cause and ideals, that they were willing to sacrifice a lot. They would fight other people’s wars, spend years in prison, put up with torture and bad treatment, or lose their family and their loved ones, all in the name of Communism.  Just how much they were willing to lose, we’ll see in these two short episodes below.

Ana Pauker
Ana Pauker

Ana Pauker (real name: Hana Rabinsohn) was a prominent Communist leader during the Communist Party’s rise to power (1940-1960), holding several key positions: Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Directorate within the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Deputy-Minister within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-president of the Council of Ministers, etc. She was married to Marcel Pauker, who actually convinced her to join the Communist movement in the first place. Both of them lived in Moscow for several years. Despite being a strong supporter of the extreme left, Marcel Pauker soon became “inconvenient” to the Stalinist regime, because he freely expressed his dissent with the Soviet direction within the Russian Communist Party. As a result, he was sent to Siberia between 1930-1932, and eventually accused of espionage in 1937. After being arrested and tortured by the NKVD (Soviet secret police), he admitted the crime, and was sentenced to death by shooting. Interestingly, throughout the show trial, his wife, Ana Pauker, never doubted the legitimacy of the trial and the fairness of the sentence. Was it because she believed so strongly in the Communist ideals, and truly thought that her husband was guilty of treason? Was it because their marriage had fallen in disarray, as both of them had extramarital relationships? Was it because she was afraid that she would have the same faith as her husband, if she stood by him and defended him? I guess we will never know for sure…

Constanta Craciun, another prominent leader during the early years of Communism in Romania, held several key positions in the administration: member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Minister of Culture (1953-1957), President of the State Committee for Culture and Arts, Vice-president of the State Council, etc. Her brother, Gheorghe Craciun, was a strong opponent of the Communist movement, and — as such — was sentenced to forced labor for life in the labor camps of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. Hearing about her brother’s arrest, Constanta Craciun renounced him as a brother. Again, we will never know the true motivation of her actions, but it’s quite possibly due to her strong commitment to the Communist ideals.

The Ears of the Romanian Secret Police: How the “Securitate” Used Microphones

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“Bugs” (microphones planted by the Securitate) were one of the many ways employed by this feared secret police to monitor the “dangerous elements” of society. I will talk about why people could be monitored, and what other techniques the Securitate used in future articles. For now, let’s talk about the specific issue of hidden mics. Their purpose was three-fold:

  1. To gather evidence against a suspected “enemy of the state”. Anything said within the privacy of one’s house could be used against him/her. Often, very intimate discussions with friends and family were being recorded, many of them without any connection to any political culpability.
  2. To confront monitored suspects with otherwise private details of their lives and personal thoughts, and thus discourage them from taking any “subversive” actions or initiating protests against the regime (as a victim, you would really start believing that the Party knows everything about you).
  3. To double-check the integrity of its informers. All Securitate informers were required to give regular, detailed accounts on the people they were asked to monitor. Sometimes, a discussion between an informer and his victim would take place somewhere where it would be recorded, thus allowing the Securitate agents to double-check the contents of the informer’s declaration against the  actual recording. This would ensure that only “loyal” informers would serve the Securitate. (Why would an informer lie about his victim? Many people would be constrained by the Securitate to become informers, without really having an interest in turning in their friends or acquaintances, so they would try to protect them instead by giving false declarations or leaving out discreditable facts.)
Intelligence office of the Securitate: this is where phones and other microphones would be listened to. (source: Historia)

The official goal given by the Communist Party to the secret police was to “discover, prevent, neutralize and liquidate any events that could pose a threat to the security of the state”. (source: Romania Libera) In reality, this meant protecting the ruling nomenclature (particularly “il lider maximo”, Nicolae Ceaușescu) at all costs, which conveyed a very loose interpretation to the term “threat”: it could be anything ranging from learning a foreign language, telling a joke about the regime, listening to a foreign television or radio station or receiving a letter from a friend abroad, to more serious “offenses”, such as writing petitions, manifests against the regime or openly criticizing the Party’s policy.

So how would a microphone be “planted” into the suspect’s house?

There were primarily two techniques used by the Romanian Securitate to bug an apartment:

  • “secret penetration”, which meant that the officers would somehow get into the apartment without the owner’s knowledge. The easiest way would be to get a hold of the keys of the apartment from an informer in the victim’s entourage, such as a neighbor or acquaintance who would be asked to water the flowers or take care of the cat while the owner was on vacation. The person facilitating the access of a Securitate agent into a building would be called a “traffic light” (Romanian: “semafor”). Sometimes, the keys were secretly “borrowed” from the owner at their work place. Often, the Securitate agents would be able to open the door lock without actually having the original keys (Communist door locks were infamously easy to open, and rumours have it that there were only 7 key models or so that could open 90% of all doors).
  • “pretense penetration”, which meant that a securitate agent under disguise would enter the apartment in the presence and with the permission of the victim, using a fake reason, such as fixing the phone lines, checking the electrical wiring or the gas installations. The agent would claim to be a technician from a utility company. (source: “Zidul de sticla. Ion D. Sarbu in arhivele Securitatii” – Clara Mares)
Monitoring people’s conversations (source: Romania Libera)

Several people were involved in the actual bugging of the apartment:

  • 1 or 2 people would remain outside, to watch the main entrance.
  • several informers were involved in making sure the monitored victims were not at home, and that close neighbors would also be gone, so any strange noises coming from the apartment would not be easily overheard.
  • 2-4 agents would remain outside the building, in their cars, ready to intervene or to evacuate the intruders, in case something unexpected happened.
  • 1-2 people would do the actual installation, depending on the complexity of the work.
  • other “back-office” employees were needed to actually listen to the recordings, take notes or select accusatory excerpts.

What kind of listening equipment did the Securitate use?

The most efficient mics were those planted directly into the walls, and connected to the electricity grid. This meant they would almost never fail, since they did not rely on bateries. However, they were more difficult to plant, and usually required the assistance of an interior decorator to “fix” any signs of breaking in and installing them.

Other microphones were those which relied on bateries, and thus were more versatile, but had a limited lifespan. They could be planted in ashtrays, under desks or other furniture.

Occasionally, the Securitate also used ambiental mics to capture conversations happening outside the buildings.

It is estimated that during the 80s, about 50,000 persons could be monitored simultaneously by the Securitate at any given moment. (source) However, there are no official records of this, and many of the recordings have been destroyed. It is also believed that many of the bugs planted by the Securitate remained active after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, and continued to be used by the (un)reformed secret services afterwards, in order to blackmail or compromise important political figures.

Are Romanians nostalgic about Communism?

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Well, it depends whom you ask, as the Romanian society is quite divided. A recent survey carried by INSCOP Research on 1,055 participants reveals this split in opinions:

  • 45.5% of respondents believe Communism was a good thing for Romania
  • 44.7% believe Communism was bad for Romania

The majority of people (44.4%) believe that living standards were better under Communism, while only 33.6% believe life was worse under Communism. People who are nostalgic about Communism generally tend to be older (above 50 years of age) and less educated. Coincidentally, the region that feels the least nostalgic about Communism is the region where the anti-Communist revolution of December 1989 started: the Western Banat region (Timișoara is the main city in this region, and also the place where the anti-Communist movement started).

The results should not be surprising to anyone, given that the grave of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in Bucharest has become a place of pilgrimage for the nostalgic, and his birth place in Scornicesti has been turned into a national museum.

Ceausescu's grave
Ceausescu’s grave

I will attempt to provide a few simple explanations for the current situation:

  • The Capitalist regime, with its free-will principle, is making Romanians very anxious. In Communism, your life as a citizen of the republic would be laid out for you by the Party: someone else took the major decisions for you. What you studied, where you worked, where you lived, and even what you could watch on TV, read or buy were all decided by the Party. For some people, this is the equivalent of pure bliss, as they do not have to make any important decisions in their lives.
  • What followed after Communism in Romania was not Capitalism, but a long period of transition, with many economic, political and social disillusions, and a lot of instability. It can be argued that this is still the case today.
  • People’s memory is short and subjective. Many do not remember the years of hardship (particularly the 80s), or tend to remember only certain (happy) moments.
  • Romanians, as a nation, do not value entrepreneurship, free thinking, and initiative, because they have lived for centuries under various foreign rulers, where they were forced to adapt to the circumstances. You can see it today, by listening to how the media or the people typically refer to entrepreneurs. (we use the somewhat pejorative term of “patron” to describe an entrepreneur, which suggests between the lines that the person is exploiting the workers).

America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Dictators: How Ceausescu Became the Western Bloc’s Favorite Maverick

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One may think that the Cold War meant a complete communication break-down between the East and the West. However, things during Communism were never just black or white. Relationships between the two “Blocs” were mainly influenced by the balance of power on each side, and by the opportunities of the moment. To safeguard their strategic interests, the United States of America often embraced diplomatic relationships with dictatorships that would otherwise be incompatible with the democratic values they are typically preaching. Such was the case with Romania, which was led at the moment by the Ceausescu couple. And so was the case later, when the American government became close friends with the Saddam regime in Iraq, or backed up the Afghan Talibans led by Osama bin Laden in the war against the Soviets.

From left to right: Nicolae Ceausescu, Jimmy Carter, Elena Ceausescu, Rosalynn Carter
From left to right: Nicolae Ceausescu, Jimmy Carter, Elena Ceausescu, Rosalynn Carter

Before becoming one of the most repressive Communist leaders in Eastern Europe, Nicolae Ceausescu enjoyed his popularity as one of the “friends” of the Western Bloc. It all began when − soon after climbing into power as the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the de facto leader of Romania − he took a stance against the Soviets by condemning their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Here is Ceausescu’s  public speech where he denounced the Soviet invasion (with partial English subtitles):

From this moment on, it was pretty clear to the Western Bloc that the Soviet Union finally had a contender from within. Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito followed the same path as Ceausescu, declaring his country independent from any Soviet influence. As a result, Ceausescu managed to maintain close relationships with both the East and the West during his regime. Romania was one of the few Communist countries (alongside China and Yugoslavia) which took part in the Summer Olympics of 1984 organized in Los Angeles.

Ceausescu receives a cowboy hat from the Mayor Deputy of Houston, Judson Robinson
Ceausescu receives a cowboy hat from the Mayor Deputy of Houston, Judson Robinson

People from Ceausescu’s entourage believed that he secretly envied America for its modernity and the high standard of living, and that he always enjoyed himself when visiting the country. He did so on four different occasions.

The Carters and the Ceausescus
The Carters and the Ceausescus

Below is an excerpt from the welcome speech given by President Jimmy Carter on April 12, 1978 at the White House:

It’s also of great benefit to me as President to have a chance to consult with a national and an international leader like our guest today. Their influence as Romanian leaders throughout the international world is exceptional. Because of the strong commitments of the President and the independence of the people, Romania has been able to serve as a bridge among nations with highly divergent views and interests and among leaders who would find it difficult under some circumstances to negotiate directly with each other.

One recent notable achievement of President Ceausescu was to be instrumental in arranging the historic visit of President Sadat of Egypt to the capital of Israel in Jerusalem. Both of those countries have found in Romania an avenue of communication and understanding that’s been very valuable to them, to the Middle East, and to world peace.

There are differences, obviously, between the United States and Romania, in our political system and also in our military alliances. But the factors which bind us together are much more profound and of much greater benefit to our countries. We share common beliefs. We believe in strong national sovereignty. We believe in preserving the independence of our nations and also of our people. We believe in the importance of honoring territorial integrity throughout the world. We believe in equality among nations in bilateral dealings, one with another, and also in international councils. We believe in the right of every country to be free from interference in its own internal affairs by another country. And we believe that world peace can come—which we both devoutly hope to see—through mutual respect, even among those who have some differences between us.

Our goals are also the same, to have a just system of economics and politics, to let the people of the world share in growth, in peace, in personal freedom, and in the benefits to be derived from the proper utilization of natural resources.

We believe in enhancing human rights. We believe that we should enhance, as independent nations, the freedom of our own people. And Romania has been instrumental in pursuing the goals of the Helsinki conference, in particular, building the mutual confidence factors that can let the nations of Eastern Europe and the nations of Western Europe understand one another better and build up legitimate trust through that understanding.

(Source)

Ceausescu’s itinerary in the United States often included visits to local businesses, research or academic institutions. Below is a photo of him visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he is guiding a Moon exploration vehicle with the help of astronaut John Young.

Ceausescu at the Houston Space Center
Ceausescu at the Houston Space Center

The relationships between the Ceausescu family and the American leaders started deteriorating in the early 80’s, after Ion Mihai Pacepa, the head of the Romanian Espionage Service, defected to the US, and started uncovering the truth about the abuses of the regime. But more about that in a future article…

Glory to the Communist Leaders: the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest

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Like everything else during the Communist regime, the Unknown Soldier Mausoleum in Carol Park (Bucharest) has been re-purposed to serve the socialist ideals and propaganda: it has been reconverted into the “Monument for heroes of the fight for liberty and Socialism”, or — in short — a mausoleum for the communist leaders.

Communist Mausoleum
Communist Mausoleum

The monument, rising 48 meters high on top of a hill in the beautiful Carol Park, was built between 1959-1963 by architects Horia Maicu and Nicolae Cucu. The mausoleum replaces an older monument dedicated to all the unknown soldiers who died in the wars fought by Romania, which was dismantled piece by piece and relocated to a different city in Romania (Marasesti). Here is how the original monument (built in 1923) looked like:

The original Unknown Soldier Monument
The original Unknown Soldier Monument

Ironically, the two socialist architects (Maicu & Cucu) recycled the plans for another memorial that was supposed to be built during the Fascist regime in Romania, because they were under pressure to deliver the blueprints. The mausoleum was built with red and black marble imported from Sweden, which is very rare, and resembles the tower of a cathedral. The mausoleum was officially inaugurated on December 30, 1963, and it was initially intended as a funeral monument for three important Communist leaders:

  • Petru Groza
  • Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej
  • Constantin I. Parhon

However, over the years, several communist leaders were buried here:

  • Stefan Gheorghiu
  • Ion C. Frimu
  • Leontin Sălăjan
  • Alexandru Moghioroș
  • Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu
  • Grigore Preoteasa
  • Ilie Pintilie
  • Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea
  • Gheorghe Vasilescu-Vasia
  • Constantin David
  • Ada Marinescu
  • Panait Mușoiu
  • Barbu Lăzăreanu
  • Simion Stoilov
  • Mihail Macavei
  • Ana Pauker

After the fall of Communism, the graves were moved to other cemeteries in Bucharest (1991). The grave of the Communist Party’s General Secretary Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej is now located in Bellu Cemetery. The urn with Ana Pauker’s ashes was taken by her family to Israel. The only communist leader still buried here is Petru Groza. The grave of the unknown soldier was also temporarily removed in October 1991, but was brought back in December 1991.

In 2004, the government led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase wanted to grant four hectares of the Carol Park to the Orthodox Church as a building site for the largest cathedral in the country. Dismantling of the monument already began, when the Mayor of Bucharest of that time, Traian Basescu, opposed this decision and sued the government. He won the trial, so the monument and the park were saved from demolition.

In 2006, the unknown soldier grave was restored to its original location from 1923. Today, the crypt is closed to the public, and only open on a few special occasions. It hosts a statue of King Ferdinand I and the Nike Goddess.

Statue of King Ferdinant and Nike Goddess
Statue of King Ferdinand and Nike Goddess

The names of the former Communist Party leaders still survive on the sides of the mausoleum, but unfortunately, access near the monument is restricted by guarding soldiers.

 

Slave Labor in Communism: Building the People’s Palace

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The People’s Palace is the second largest administrative office building in the world, after the Pentagon, in terms of volume, and Bucharest’s most prominent landmark. You can see it from almost every corner of the city, and almost 1 million people visit it every year. However, few people know that an area the size of Venice (Italy) inhabited by more than 30,000 families had to be razed to the ground by bulldozers in order to build it (more about this in a future article). Even fewer people realize that slave labor had to be used to accomplish such a feat.

Casa Poporului

The actual construction of the palace began officially on June 25, 1984, when the cornerstone was laid. However, forced demolitions and works on the construction site began as early as 1981. Construction continued until the violent collapse of the Communist regime, in December 1989, but the building was never completed. Even today, in its current state, the building is considered to be only 60-80% complete, depending on whom you ask.

At the height of the construction activities, 20,000 workers and another 20,000 soldiers worked on the site, around the clock, 7 days a week, in 3 shifts. Among the workers, prisoners were also used. The soldiers working on the site were paid, but they were given very little choice, if any, before being brought in as workers. The total number of soldiers working on the construction site during the 7 years of activity is estimated to be 500,000. A typical shift would last for 8 hours, but that was only the actual physical labor. If you counted the time needed to get to the construction site, to prepare for work, to take part in the countless inspections of the party officials, and to get back home, you would easily end up with 12-hour shifts.

Construction site for People's House
Construction site for People’s House

The soldiers and prisoners working on the construction site were often second-class citizens, being constantly harassed by “regular” workers. Because Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist leader of that time, wanted the building to be completed in record time, he frequently visited the construction site, often demanding that construction activities should be accelerated. However, he would also request frequent changes to the plans of the building, which caused further delays. Sometimes, the changes were executed directly on the construction site, without further consultation with the team of over 500 architects.

The bureaucracy surrounding the construction activities and the frequent controls by Army officials, Communist Party representatives, Securitate agents or the president himself created a very oppressive working environment. The long and exhausting working hours took their toll on the workers’ family life, also: many would barely get to see their children and wives, and had to divorce after a few months on the construction site. Some committed suicide, often on the construction site.

Casa Poporului Construction Site
Casa Poporului Construction Site

The construction site is considered by many to be a forced labor camp. There were no toilets or running water, and food was served once per day in the Republicii Stadium, which was turned into a huge “cafeteria” (in reality, a place were very basic food was served: cabbage soup with bread or boiled potatoes or beans).

Robi pe Uranus
Robi pe Uranus

Robi pe Uranus” (“Slaves on Uranus”) is a very good book by author Ioan Popa about the working conditions for soldiers on the labor camp (the book is in Romanian, but it could use an English translation). The author, a leftist writer and soldier from a workers’ family, was sent to the Uranus labor camp after expressing dissent with the Communist Party’s propagandists. Despite being published after the anti-Communist Revolution of 1989, the book caused quite a stir in the Army, as many of the characters mentioned in the book (under an alias) still worked there. The Army officials tried to discredit him for several years, and even to officially impeach him; then, they changed strategy, stating that the book is pure fiction.

To date, nobody knows the official number of victims on the construction site of the People’s house. Some of them may still be buried in the actual building. In one event described in the book, a team of workers is asked by Ceausescu to demolish a pillar and rebuild it in a different position. As they began to break up the concrete pillar with their hammer drills, they discovered the body of a colleague preserved inside. Many workers died in the barracks during the night because of disease, exhaustion, malnutrition or work accidents which lead to complications.